Regina C. Casper / Ellen Reed
Volume 6.2
Casper / Reed
Costa Lima
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Body- and Self-Image in College Athletes

It is easy to imagine something as tangible as the body, its shape, its movements, its beauty or its frailty in illness and old age. To fathom something as elusive and invisible as the body image requires self-reflection and abstraction. Body image is one aspect of the body concept, the term indicates how an individual perceives and conceives her or his own body as a whole and in its parts. The human body is the only object that is simultaneously perceived and is part of the perceiver, a point masterfully portrayed in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's story of a man who exchanges his soul for youth that never fades.

Before Paul Schilder introduced the phrase body image, "body schema" was the technical term preferred by clinicians. Schilder, a neurologist/psychiatrist, who treated injured soldiers in World War I, noticed that men who had had a leg amputated behaved and felt as if the amputated leg was still in place.1  He concluded from his observations that the brain integrates a plan of the body and that this image is anchored in brain neurons and only gradually adjusts to changes or losses of body parts. We still do not know which brain site houses this schematic representation, there is evidence that it might be embedded somewhere in the parietal lobe. In our appearance-conscious society the body image has lost its neutrality and has become a fashionable topic of conversation, mistakenly understood as a morbid preoccupation with an ideal body shape.

Whereas on a day-to-day basis, people are generally unaware of a body schema, under certain pathological conditions, such as amputations, the body image enters consciousness and produces such phenomena as 'phantom' pain, pain experienced in the absent limb. Other examples are situations in which bodily changes are willfully imposed in pursuit of an ideal, sometimes defensively, to counterbalance a poor self image, such as the pursuit of thinness in anorexia nervosa or the pursuit of muscular bulk in men who abuse steroids. Since in the long run self confidence cannot be achieved by focusing on the body, such efforts become interminable processes. The bodily changes achieved are never considered perfect enough and so exercise fanatics can end up with ape shaped upper bodies and dieting teenagers can turn into skeletons.

The athlete's body image
Greek and Roman artists have shaped our view of the athlete's body through paintings on vessels and through sculptures. Many of these representations seem to be idealized rather than realistic casts and moldings. Indeed, we do not know how athletes in antiquity themselves viewed their bodies.

Since normal, confident persons tend to be in harmony with their bodies and its shape and form, confident athletes, who feel good about themselves and their performance, are expected to pay little attention to their body image.

Emotional well-being of athletes
But is the premise that athletes have self confidence accurate? When we examine the literature, numerous studies have shown that professional athletes consistently rate their emotional balance as being superior to that of the general population.
2  The so-called iceberg profile, its peak showing that attributes such as liveliness, cheerfulness, alertness and insouciance raise athletes above the average nonathlete, has become proverbial.3

Using other measures, Morgan and others found that elite athletes are characterized by excellent emotional health.4  On the Eysenck Personality Inventory and the Profile of Mood States, athletes ranked below average in neurosis, tension, depression, fatigue, and confusion compared to the population mean and scored significantly higher than normal in extroversion and vigor. Among wrestlers, rowers, and distance runners, the successfully competing athletes scored below unsuccessful athletes on negative feelings, but scored similarly or higher on vigor and extroversion as well as on anger. Champion athletes on the American and British Track teams scored significantly lower on anxiety than normal young adults on the Catell 16 Personality Factor Scale, whereas anxiety levels of junior athletes approximated the norm in a study by Heusner.5

Under which circumstances then do athletes become aware of or refer to their bodies? Considering newspaper sports pages as evidence, athletes who feel in command rarely refer to their bodies. Even though millions watch games, athletes seem to be remarkably indifferent to their appearance. When one examines sports pages for comments on the appearance of athletes, one searches for a long time. At most, there are comments like "he looked solid," "he does look strong," "he adds a lot of grip to our team," "I think he is too big and too fast," or "the waist size has gone up a bit for someone on a track team." Athletes themselves tend to become articulate about themselves once they express worries about injury or aging. Under such dissonance the body seems to move into awareness: "your body won't let you go on any longer," "you are wiped out," "I felt pretty rusty." Yet there are truly resilient athletes, who, despite injuries, do not refer to their bodies. The outstanding Stanford gymnast Jene Elzie was quoted as saying "I have come to the point where I have been injured so many times that I know how to deal with the injuries. I don't worry about being ready for meets. Adrenaline is the best painkiller."

In competitive sports which depend on weight requirements and thus deal with body shape, the body image is more often on the athlete's mind. Aside from physical strength or skill, in gymnastics, wrestling or weight lifting, appearance, form and/or weight are crucial for performance and the level of performance is not infrequently related to achieving a certain body weight or body size.

Dancers are one such example. Ballet dancers must meet strict requirements for weight and body shape and therefore they think about how they appear.
6  The current ideal body is one that is long and lean. Dancers, therefore, do everything possible to look long and lean. Garner and others reported that 25% of 35 professional ballet students in the Canadian Ballet School had developed anorexia nervosa and 14% had developed bulimia nervosa.7  In a study by Brooks-Gunn and Warren, late maturing dancers (menarche after age 14) were less critical of their bodies and had lower levels of eating problems and psychopathology than early maturing dancers.8

Wrestlers are another group who seek a body suited for optimal performance, generally a different body weight. Wrestlers are required to meet exacting standards of weight. They often engage in hazardous weight loss procedures to make the weight for a certain match. Comparisons of wrestlers, swimmers and cross country skiers found wrestlers to have higher levels of eating disturbances.

Another example are jockeys. Jockeys and their practices in South Africa have been examined in a comprehensive study reported by Labadarios and others.
10  The study was commissioned by the South African Government, who was interested in exploring the reasons for the higher than normal rates of eating disorders, depressive disorders and suicide in jockeys.

The weight a horse must carry in a race is determined in accordance with certain rules, which in this case were established by the South African Jockey Club. The minimum weight was defined as not less than 46 kg (102 lbs.) in a fixed weight race. It was therefore mandatory for jockeys, all of whom were males, to attain or maintain as low a body weight as possible to secure rides and wins.

Labadarios and others studied 91% of 102 qualified jockeys in South Africa with an average height of 161 cm (5'3") and an average age of 27.8 years.11  All, except one Indian, were Caucasian. Jockeys were found to have developed a number of techniques to reduce their body weight quickly prior to a race. These techniques included singly or in combination restriction of food and liquid intake, exercise, dehydration through the use of saunas and hot baths and self-medication, with laxatives and appetite suppressants. Jockeys were found to practice short-term weight reduction twice weekly throughout the year. The study also found that a decline in performance, in recall, reaction and response time, was significantly correlated with the amount of weight lost in preparation for the race meeting. Based on the results from this study, the South African Jockey Club adjusted minimum weights for a race upward.

Assessment of body and self-image in college athletes
If body and self-image are invisible, how can they be measured? Instruments have been developed which assess components of the body image. One such instrument, a body size estimation device, can reliably measure under- or overestimation of body size.
12  Applying this or other devices to this study would have required athletes to forego at least an hour of their training time. To avoid interference with the athlete's training and to make it convenient, we used a brief self-report survey for this pilot project.

We designed a one page questionnaire to inquire about body and self-perceptions and attitudes towards weight and training. In analogy to ancient sports —the early Egyptians list swimming, diving, dancing and ball games—we surveyed the basketball and the swimming teams and included synchronized swimmers and divers. The following hypotheses guided this study:

    In view of the fact that all athletes excel in games requiring physical strength, athletes were expected to describe themselves as feeling energetic and vigorous.

    Since the literature describes athletes as emotionally well-balanced, body satisfaction ought to be high and the body image of athletes would be expected to conform closely to their actual body size and form.

    Competitive sports where performance depends on or is judged not only by skill or endurance, but also by appearance, will more often show discrepancies between the actual and ideal body. In these sports, the body's image might not match the actual body and the athlete might strive more often to achieve a body ideal .

Athletes were also expected to show gender differences in the expression of their body image. Men would more likely pursue a bigger body, by contrast women would more likely desire to be smaller. However, female athletes were expected to see themselves as committed to their sport as male athletes.

Female athletes, just as other women in our culture, would be more body-conscious and would show a greater tendency to want to induce changes along an idealized body image.

A word of caution to begin with: given the small sample size , the results are suggestive, but might not be representative.

Vigor and body image
Table I displays age, body weight and height, ideal body weight and the responses to the relevant questions from the questionnaire, listed separately for each team sport. It must be mentioned that the questionnaire was given during the training season.

The results from the survey suggest that:

    Athletes, both male and female, in fact, feel strong and healthy. Between 30-50% of athletes feel high energy most of the time and the remainder feel high energy sometimes. There is a relationship between energy level and duration of training; more training time is associated with lower energy levels.

    Except for the swimmers, athletes approve of their appearance for the most part. Those who liked their appearance and those who felt strong and healthy considered significantly more often their body build as just right (Chi-square 11.7; p<.02 and Chi-square 6.30; p<.04, respectively). This relationship was observed for both men and women, when each group was analyzed separately. A majority considers their sport the most intense and satisfying experience.

Gender differences: Female athletes thought of themselves as being just as involved and satisfied with their sport as male athletes. The experience of repeated success for the women on the basketball team during the season when the questionnaire was administered might well have favorably influenced these responses. Athletes, whether male or female, say they strive for physical strength. The wish for greater strength accords well with the male athletes' desire for stronger, heavier bodies, but it is irreconcilable with the female athletes' desire for stronger, yet lighter bodies.

Aesthetic sports: The wish to change bodily form or strength was most frequent among aesthetic swimmers, whose sport depends on appearance, compared to the other team sports (Chi-square 16.25; p.<.Ol). Female synchronized swimmers also reported the greatest discrepancy between ideal and actual body weight.


Age, weight, height, attitudes toward body and self-perception



Gender differences
Overall male athletes felt more often strong and healthy than female athletes (Chi-square 4.6; p<.03) and felt more often high in energy (Chi-square 6.5; p<.04). There was a trend for male athletes to be more often satisfied with their appearance than women athletes (Chi-square 11.2; p<.052). Despite the high body approval rate for appearance, most men and all women wanted to change some part of their body, for the most part they wanted to be stronger or better proportioned.

Male athletes more often than female athletes wanted to gain (Chi-square 11.2; p<.001) and female athletes more often than male athletes wanted to lose weight (Chi-square 25.6; p<.000). Nevertheless, there were exceptions, since three male swimmers wanted to lose weight and five women, four of whom wanted to be stronger, wished to gain weight.



Age, weight, height, attitudes toward body and self-perception



In conclusion
In athletes, the body image or body ideal seems to be primarily determined by an objective socially sanctioned goal, physical strength and excellence in a particular sport. Thus athletes differ from the normal population in whom the body image appears more often driven by perceived or imagined physical deficiencies. Female athletes, however, seem to be under the same cultural pressures as other women to weigh less, even though female athletes wish to be stronger.

Athletes, both male and female, report a high degree of body and self-satisfaction. The wish for a more perfect body ideal in athletes seems to be related to performance. As predicted, in sports where performance is partly dependent on aesthetics, the discrepancy between the ideal body image and body size is greater than in sports where appearance matters less for the competition.


This paper is dedicated with appreciation to all Stanford athletes, who gave generously of their time and shared their thoughts for this study.

Regina C. Casper, M.D. and Ellen Reed, B.S.



(1)  P. Schilder, The Image and Appearance of the Human Body (London: Kagan, Paul, French, Trubner & Co., 1935).

(2)  R.C. Casper, "Exercise and Mood," Nutrition and Fitness for Athletes, eds. A.P. Simopoulos and K.N. Pavlou, World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics, vol. 71 (Basel: Karger, 1993) 115–43.

(3)  Based on self-esteem ratings, using the Profile of Mood States, for which see D. McNair, M. Lorr, L. Droppleman, Manual: Profile of Mood States (San Diego: Educational and Industrial Testing Service, 1971).

(4)  W.P. Morgan and D.L. Costill, "Psychological characteristics of the marathon runner," Journal of Sports Medicine 12 (1972): 42–46. W.P. Morgan, P.J. O'Connor, P.B. Sparling, et al., "Psychologic characterization of the elite female distance runner," International Journal of Sports Medicine 8 (1987): 124–31.

(5) L. Heusner, Personality Traits of Champion and Former Champion Athletes, Research Study (Champaign: University of Illinois, 1952).

(6)  F.I. Katch, "The body profile analysis system (BPAS) to estimate ideal body size and shape: application to ballet dancers and gymnasts," Nutrition and Fitness for Athletes 69–83.

(7)  D.M. Garner, P.E. Garfinkel, W. Rockert, et al., "A prospective study of eating disturbances in the ballet," Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics 48 (1987): 170–75.

(8)  J. Brooks-Gunn and M.P. Warren, "Effects of delayed menarche in different contexts: Dance and nondance students," Journal of Youth and Adolescence 14 (1985): 285–300.

(9)  M.P. Enns, A. Drewnowski, and J.A. Grinker, "Body composition, body size estimation and attitudes towards eating in male college athletes," Psychosomatic Medicine 49 (1987): 56–64.

(10)  D. Labadarios, J. Kotze, Momberg, Tj.v.D. and W. Kotze, "Jockeys and their practices in South Africa," Nutrition and Fitness for Athletes, eds. A.P. Simopoulos and K.N. Pavlou, World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics, vol. 71 (Basel: Karger, 1993): 97–114.

(11)  Labadarios et al. 97–114.

(12)  R.C. Casper, K.A. Halmi, S.C. Goldberg, E.D. Eckert, and J.M. Davis, "Disturbance in body image estimations as related to other characteristics and outcome in anorexia nervosa," British Journal of Psychiatry 134 (1979): 60–66.


© 1998 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.